A Child’s Grief
I have often said that children are the forgotten grievers. Much attention is offered to adults by other adults, but the “little ones” are frequently overlooked by those coming to bring food, or offer condolences to the adults. Let’s begin with the littlest ones in a household. Here is how the myth goes: Infants and toddlers are too young to grieve.
A brief visit to a human development class would inform us that the youngest of our households have attachment to the people around them who love them. When that person is suddenly taken from them, there is a loss for that infant or toddler. Could it be that caring adults would take the extra steps to hold, cuddle, love, and play with that child? That little one needs to know support at their developmental level. Lacking vocabulary and words does not equal an absent sense of loss.
When our son died, he left a 1 ½ year old younger sister, our darling daughter, Joanna. At the time, I wondered what she knew and understood about her brother’s sudden absence. For weeks, I noticed little Joanna just sitting in the middle of the room. Dawson had been an exceptional big brother. The two of them played so well together. It seemed she was waiting for him to play with her, to occupy her focus and attention. I wish now that I had mourned with her. If only I had held her and allowed myself to weep, so that she would know it is okay to be sad. I wish now that I had explained that her brother would not be home for her to play with and we could have cried together. Instead, I was brave around her. Yes, I loved and held her, but I wasn’t very real with my grieving around her. I can only wonder how that might have made a difference.
Please remember this: child development works on a spiraling expansion of new skills and knowledge. With each new level of accomplishment, there exists the need to revisit the losses in a child’s live that previously lacked language and comprehension. As caring adults, either family or friends need to be aware that a child might want to talk about their loss at any random time. So be there with them. Explore their questions and new understanding. Be prepared that delayed feelings of fear, anger or regret might also be displayed.
One day when Joanna was 6 years old, she suddenly burst into tears. I asked her what was the matter and she said, “I wish I had a brother!” By age 6 she was capable of recognizing and verbalizing the feelings of her loss. I knelt down beside her and we just held each other. She was mourning the loss of what she could have had, but didn’t. I now wish I had been more alert to other times when the cycle of grieving Dawson’s death had come her way. I wish I had talked more about grief and assured her it was normal and needed expression. I wish she had observed my own cycles of mourning.
So today, I write this post with the hope that I can help another family who has grieving children to understand the needs of that child. I want to encourage you to step into their child’s perspective. Let your children grieve when they grieve and when they don’t grieve, watch them play and grow. Then be there when the cycle of grief comes again. Always be there, notice, affirm, comfort, and give them permission to grieve. Just maybe a new generation of healthy mourners will grow into caring adults.